In this article, Bola Atta ponders on the uniting factors that could transform Africa from rising to the risen continent.

It is often that my job responsibilities take me across the African continent for various reasons. I consider this as one of the benefits of working in a successful pan-African organisation, with footprints in 20 African countries and in the UK, the USA and presence in France. I often get to see Africa in all its beauty and splendour, and to view the problems as mere challenges that have the potential to be perfectly turned around in just a few decades.

Last week, I had the opportunity to represent UBA Group Chairman, Mr Tony O. Elumelu, at the Sultani Makutano conference in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo(DRC). The Makutano was a meeting of great minds, leaders and youths from across Africa in one space, to discuss the issues that impede development on the continent and the way forward. The forum is in its 5th year already and this year, it seemed like all of DRC had gathered together for 3 days to support the cause.
Africa is the continent less travelled. A good reason for this is the lack of available and or affordable network of transportation to get people around. What should typically have been a three - hour flight, took me 24 hours from door-to-door.

I wasn’t tired however. I knew the trip was going to be worth the journey. I was energetic as I arrived in Kinshasa, the country that is now the biggest land mass in Africa(after the Sudan was divided into North and South). DRC has over 80 million inhabitants, with an estimated growth to 90 million in the next couple of years. The land is massive and though not as populated as my country of origin, Nigeria, there are 12 million people living in the capital city of Kinshasa.

The United Bank for Africa, UBA, operates in DRC and has a prominent profile in the country. What that means is that the economy of DRC is doing okay with a lot of potential to be great. I hear that it was once the African country where the best medical doctors on the continent lived and worked. Fashionable Kinshasa is home of the Sapeurs; The Chic Congolais are known all over the world for their dedication to looking good. It is extremely rich in natural resources but like many other African countries, about 80% of its population still live in poverty.
That’s one of the reasons for the gathering of participants at the Makutano forum. The newly elected and dynamic, young president of the DRC, H.E Felix Tshisekedi was at the Sultani Makutano. He means business. He opened the forum, attended sessions, talked on a panel and closed the forum. He was also at the closing dinner to celebrate the youths and award those who are the future business leaders of DRC.

Sultani Makutano is the brain child of Nicole Sulu-Tshiyoyo, heiress to the Sultani hotel empire that her father built in highbrow La Gombe in Kinshasa. Nicole studied speech therapy and business management in Europe and when she first returned to the Congo, she started to work in a hospital before leaving to join the family business. She comes from a background of privilege, but is passionate about eradicating poverty in Africa, especially starting with her country, DRC.

Tony Elumelu, the UBA Group Chairman continues to make a mark on the continent as he traverses Africa, changing the narrative from despair to hope. It is the reason why Nicole was nearly moved to tears when he was unable to make it to the DRC for Makutano’s fifth year anniversary. I was no consolation but was received with almost as much hospitality as would have been accorded the father of Africapitalism. Everywhere I went, I was asked ‘when is Tony coming?’ And yes, its just Tony because everyone can relate to what he is doing and feels that they know him personally.

Tony wasn’t at Makutano, but his ideal of Africapitlaism was alive as several presidents and ex - presidents met to discuss the issues around poverty and development in Africa. President Felix Tshisekedi was host to the President of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou; Liberia’s former President, Mrs Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf; Ghana’s immediate former President John Mahama; Minister Cheik Kante, the Senegalese minister for planning who was representing President Macky Sall. Private sector leaders like Gisele Mundiay(immediate past Chair lady of UBA, DRC); Patrick Kabisi(CEO, UBA DRC); Joss Ilunga(CEO of Dijimba Sarl); Abary Souaibou(DG of Afriland first bank); Michel Losembe(CEO of Tshinu Consulting) as well as representatives of international Aid organisations were also present, amongst many other notable figures.

I attended a panel session for women in business where Madame Ellen Sirleaf spoke as did the first lady of DRC, Mrs Denise Nyakeru Thsisekedi; Noella Coursaris Musunka, the super model turned philanthropist also spoke so eloquently. The voice of the first female president of the DRC House of Assembly, Honourable Jeanine Mabunda Mudiayi was very moving but the one I will remember the most was Valerie Neim, the DG of Credit Cooperatif in Cameroun. She talked about her rise to the top as a woman. Along the way, she lost her son because of work. This session for me as a woman, and a working woman, was one that I listened to in awe of every speaker at the breakfast meeting.
The presidential panel later on that day was invigorating. The president started by referencing his trip to Abuja, Nigeria a couple of months prior, to attend the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Forum. He recalled the Congolese entrepreneurs who were representing the DRC and his interaction with them throughout the 2 days. It awakened something in him. “Africa is the continent of plenty’ he said.  And former president Mahama re-affirmed this saying ‘governments should use these resources, make decisions that will make their people happy and help them progress’.

The week before this had been one of deep thought and some kind of re-examination in Africa as blacks turned on blacks in South Africa, a country where the blacks had been under oppression for decades through the era of apartheid. Many found it unbelievable that the black South Africans could not remember their African brothers who fought on their side through the dark ages.

At Makutano, the question came up as to who the real foreigners were on the continent. Minister Kante who was representing President Macky Sall asked ‘are the real foreigners those who re-invest what they make doing business in your country or those who take the bulk of it out to developed countries”? He urged Africans to take charge of their economies and never to be shy to show success.

My trip to the DRC reinforced that Africa is indeed a continent of plenty: people, natural resources, not to talk about the sunshine and the colourful and varied cultures.  So what is lacking and keeping the continent behind? Mrs Johnson- Sirleaf says it would help if we all learnt each other’s languages.

I certainly don’t have the answer. The rhetoric will continue for many years longer until we eventually find the solution. For me, for now, I would say travel around the continent could be made easier. We need affordable modes of transportation like trains, and we also need good roads for cars and buses. We all need to be able to move around to see the potential of our continent. Maybe only then can the transition to prosperity be realized. We could all be heroes, if we were only awake.

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